Sunday, September 16, 2012

Walking Twenty One: A Heroic Coming of Age Walking Journey Into Adulthood

About this time last year I was fortunate enough to be a featured reader at Essay Fiesta, the brilliant reading series hosted by Keith Ecker and Alyson Lyon. Hosted by the great people at The Book Cellar, Essay Fiesta meets every third Monday of the month and is closing in on their three year anniversary in November.  You should go check it out.

Below is a slightly condensed version of what I read that night.  For those of you who did not participate in my twenty first birthday celebration oh so many years ago, here is what you missed.  For those of you who did participate, please feel free to set the record straight.  My memory on the subject is a little hazy.  And for those of you who have read "Wild" by Chery Strayed, well, I wish this story was anything like that.

Walking Twenty One
A Heroic Coming of Age Walking Journey Into Adulthood

Man has always walked.  Putting one foot in front of the other has always been our primary means of transportation.  We celebrate and memorialize in video and pictures when our children take their first steps.  In ancient times, we had no choice.  There were no cars, no CTA, no bicycles, no scooters, none of those shoes with the wheels in the heels.  To get from one place to another, we walked.  To this day, we still walk, although most of us do it less than ever before.

I myself have been a walker.  My grade school was not far enough away for a bus, but too close for my mother to drive me.  My high school was the same story.  Often I would just go for walks because, hey, what else did I have to do.  When I moved into the city for college we walked everywhere all the time.  We’d walk the lakefront path because we were close.  We’d walk from Lincoln Park to downtown because we could.   We’d walk up to Wrigley field because we were cheap.  Every once in a while a walk could turn epic.  One lakefront walk on a warm February day produced the iconic picture from my time in college: six of us freshman staring through a six foot high melting pile of snow on the beach, wearing shorts and t-shirts.  Where we went we walked.

Speaking of college, I was one of the last among my college friends to turn twenty-one, and for months I masqueraded as Kyle S. Bright, using a terrible, expired fake ID that looked like me only in that we were both males.  It worked at only the lowliest of the Lincoln Park dives, places where the bouncers were our classmates, never mind that I could never remember Kyle’s social security number or address.  I wanted to use my own ID, my own face, my own name, to get into a bar.   I wanted to be Mike Smolarek: twenty one year old party guy.

Mmm, Baywatch
Finally, my twenty-first birthday arrived.  Sadly, so did the mid-term from my Multivariable Calculus class.  More sadly, it was a night class.  So, at midnight, the moment I turned twenty-one, I stopped studying, cracked open a can of Busch Light, better known as the “nectar of the Gods” among my roommates, and watched the Baywatch girls run in slow motion on the beach for an hour.  So far, this was no different than many other nights that year.  (By the way, did you ever realize that if they took all of the slow motion montage scenes from a Baywatch episode and played them at normal speed it would only be a half-hour show?).

My high school Calc book
The day dragged on and the Calculus test seemed to be the longest test we’d had all year.  By the time I’d finished, the Mike Smolarek twenty first birthday crowd had assembled and was waiting for me.  I put on my nice jeans, the pair without the holes in the knees and the one nice button-up shirt I had.  I also took all the money out of my wallet thinking it was my birthday and there was no way I was going to pay for anything.  Then I slipped a twenty dollar bill back in, just in case.

It lost a B before it could be found everywhere
The first place I wanted to go was  BW-3, a bar I would later live above, a bar that has since been renamed Buffalo Wild Wings, is now family friendly and ubiquitous.  Back then it was my favorite place and it was Wednesday, trivia night, dollar twenty-five twenty three ounce Rolling Rock night.  Sadly, it was also hockey playoff season and the Chicago Blackhawks were playing and there was a line outside the bar.  I have one rule when it comes to bars: no bar is worth waiting in line for.  We headed next door to the Gin Mill.   My friends let me lead the way, Dale, Pat, Marty, Kristin and her brother Ken, Christa and a few others.  I handed my ID to the bouncer.  He gave it the once over, then said “Happy Birthday.  Head to the bar for a shot.”
There were a few shots, a beer or two, normal stuff for someone turning twenty one.   After an hour, I wanted to smoke a cigar, something you could still do in a bar back them.  (You kids out there have no idea what you missed.  Coming home covered in smoke, the smell clinging to your clothes.  You could almost feel the smoke wash down your body in the shower the next morning.)  We crossed Lincoln and Halsted and went to The Everleigh Club.  A cheap cigar, a few more beers, a couple of shots and we moved on.  I was feeling good.  But this is where things start getting hazy.

Don't drink these.  Ever.  Really.
First of all, I was no longer in charge of this mess.   I would have said agreed to anything.  I was a certified yes man.  I was in it for the long haul.  Secondly, the two people who were most likely to make sure I got home, Kristen and Ken, sweet, rational, caring Kristen and Ken, had gone home.  Now Dale was calling the shots.  And when we got to the next bar, he called a lot of shots.  A whole tray of them, whiskey, I think. Our numbers had dwindled.   Who was going to drink all of these shots?  It turns out it was me.
That is the last thing I recall without straining my cerebral cortex.  It was around midnight, although I wasn’t wearing a watch so I couldn’t be sure.   We’d been out for just over three hours.  From this point on until much, much later in the evening, I mean, morning, I cannot accurately gauge the reality or timing of any events.   

During the rest of the night, the following ten things may or may not have happened.
1)      I attempted to kiss a girl in the bar.
2)      I told Christa something so un-polite she stopped speaking to me.  For a year.
3)      I played basketball in Oz Park.
4)      I ditched Marty, telling him over and over again I knew where I was going, “One Hundred Percent.”
5)      I was stopped by Chicago Police officers in a paddy wagon.
6)      I slept on a park bench
7)      I got rained on.
8)      I hooked up with a girl
9)      I yelled at a taxi driver while in the cab
10)   I threw up

Let’s address these one at a time.  The ones for which I have confirmation, I have listed the source.

1)      Kissing the girl at the bar- Yes, I did attempt this, although I have no recollection of this.  In fact, I was not told this happened by anyone until my twenty second birthday when Dale, again calling the shots,  told me he almost got into a fight with the guy who was with the girl while apologizing for me. 
2)      Christa -I must have said something terrible to Christa because she didn’t speak to me again until halfway into our senior year.  I have never asked her what I said and no one else has told me.  By now she must have forgiven me because she is my Facebook friend and people never lie on Facebook.
3)      Basketball in Oz Park.  I woke up with giants scrapes on my forehead and nose from my game of air basketball in the park.  Marty told me the next day about my full court run towards the basket, my magnificent leap towards the rim, and the ugly, face first landing as gravity took over from drunken weightlessness.  It took him a long time to tell me the story because he was laughing.  A lot.
4)      Ditching Marty – True.  After Oz Park I took off south down the red line tracks, insisting I knew where I was going.  Mary tried to keep up with me but couldn’t.  In his defense, he was drunk too, and well, I was sort of a drunk walking pro. 
5)      The Police -  While I cannot prove that I stopped and talked to a paddy wagon,  I recall a conversation with Chicago’s finest where I explained it was my 21st birthday (true), that my friends ditched me (false) and that I lived in that building right there (false).  They told me to get home safe, I walked to the building, opened the door to the lobby, pretended to open the inside door with my keys, then, after the paddy wagon pulled away,  ran as fast as I could the opposite direction.  Again, no actual proof of this exists and all requests for interviews with the Chicago Police Department were laughed at. 
6)      The Park Bench- I recall lying down on a park bench because I was so tired and my legs.  Not confirmed by an outside, sober source, but most likely true.
7)      The rain - I recall getting up from the park bench because I felt rain drops and I feared waking up in the park in the morning with both my wallet and my pants missing.  Not sure why I was so worried about someone stealing my pants.  It seemed rational at the time. this is confirmed because I woke up at home still wearing the wet clothes.
8)      Hooking up with a girl?  Not a chance. 
9)      The taxi cab –At some point, after sleeping, or not, on a park bench and after blocks of blocks of the addresses going up instead of down among streets names that did not look familiar, my brain cleared up enough to realize I needed a cab home.  A few minutes into the ride, I yelled at the cabbie because I thought he was going the wrong way.  He insisted he was taking me the fastest way.  But I was drunk, and clearly right, and so damn sure I was right, that I keep yelling at him.  Eventually, we got to Fullerton, he pointed at the street sign and I relented.  The cab fare ended up being about eleven dollars.  That’s 1996 dollars!  That’s like a hundred today.  I gave the cabby a twenty, asked for no change and hung my head in shame as I exited in front of my dorm.  It’s a good thing I put that twenty back in my wallet.
10)   Puking - I did not throw up that night.   Not that night.

The red numbers of my alarm clock read 4:30 when I fell into bed without changing clothes.  I woke up at nine a.m., drank some water, puked, drank more water, changed into clean, not-wet, non-muddy, non-smoky clothes, then went back to sleep.  I woke up again at one p.m, puked, showered, and tried to eat.  Not only was my head pounding and my stomach churning but my legs ached.  I was sore like I had gone for a ten mile hike.  I felt unsteady in any position and couldn’t even focus on the TV, so I went back to sleep until five o’clock.  I finally listened to my messages.  Everyone called, wondering if I had made it home, the first message from Marty at 12:45 a.m.

As I replayed the night back in my head trying to figure out what happened in those four hours.  It turned out I did something that was habitual for me: I started walking. 

Post-drinking walking was not new to me.  Often when we took cabs or the L to a party, I would walk home instead.  Sometimes I didn’t want to spend the six or eight dollars on cab.  Sometimes I left when I was mad and used the time to cool off.  Sometimes I used it as a way to sober up a little before going home.  Most times I just walked because I liked to walk.

Only this time I was unable to chart a proper course.  I tried to trace my path but it was before GPS phones so it was impossible.  I could only remember certain things. I’m sure I followed the red line L track south starting at Webster, but who knows where I went next.  I remember hopping a fence to cross a busy street I now thing was Lake Shore Drive but even looking at a map, I can pick out the place.  The spot where I talked to the cops seemed nice and had some mid-rises: was that the near north side. I remember address in the 3100s right after I pulled myself up from the park bench.   I thought they were north, but, based on the cab ride they had to be west, making Humboldt Park the only park that would make sense.  With these few details, by my best calculations, I walked at least six miles that night.  But I don’t like to think of it as a drunken stumble.  I call it a heroic coming of age walking journey into adulthood.  I set out on my own, by ditching my friends.  I overcame adversity, being drunk, and I made it home alive with stories to tell, thanks to help from others, my cab driver.

Which brings me be back to the beginning.  Man was always walking.  At some point, homo-sapiens walked out of Africa, up through Europe, across Asia, into North America before settling here in Chicago.   Moses and his followers wandered the desert for forty years (clearly, men were in charge and were afraid to ask directions).  Were the drinking?  It seems likely.

And who’s to say that back in ancient Egypt, at the cradle of the Nile, after they learned fermented fruit made a good drink, one that made you smarter, better looking and more sure of yourself, there wasn’t a guy out there like me, celebrating his birthday, at whatever the drinking age was in ancient Egypt, who had one, or ten, too many, uch, ditched his friends and wandered through the desert for a few hours. 

I learned my lesson, though.   The next night, as my roommates laughed, my head still pounding, I insisted that I would never drink again.  And I kept that promise, for two whole days.

Thanks for reading.

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